Last week, I began this review of 2012 with the first half of my A-to -Z reflections. Here’s the second half, including some amazing performances by three 22-year-old pros, and an almost perfect sets of results by the women’s Eddy Merckx. But let’s start with one remarkable ’cross racer….
N for Nys. It’s being said that Belgian cyclo-cross star Sven Nys, 36, could be his discipline’s greatest-ever athlete. He has already won nine events in the current season to go with his more than 300 career ’cross victories. Though he’s only won a single world title (2005), Nys has taken six World Cup championships (and is headed for a seventh crown), 11 Superprestige titles and eight Belgian national championships in his 15 pro seasons.
O for Olympics. The Games of the 30th Olympiad in London saw cycling become one of the most popular sports, with estimated crowds of a million spectators watching the men’s and women’s road races on separate days, while the track, mountain-bike and BMX events all played to full houses. The home fans were rewarded by the British team winning eight gold medals, while no other country took more than one.
P for Phinney. In 2012 at age 22, BMC Racing’s Taylor Phinney shed his image as just the son of Olympic-medalist parents, and began building his own pro road palmarès. At the top of the list was his winning the opening time trial at the Giro d’Italia and defending the pink jersey until stage 4, while he came close at the London Olympics with fourth place in both the road race and time trial, before winning the final stage of the USA Pro Challenge and then taking silver medals at the worlds’ time trials (both team and individual). A sign for Phinney’s future was a promising 15th place in his debut Paris-Roubaix after working hard all day for his team leader, Alessandro Ballan, who placed third.
Q for Quintana. Another 22-year-old, Nairo Quintana, enjoyed a remarkable debut season with Movistar in the UCI WorldTour. This Colombian climber scored half a dozen wins. They included a significant stage victory in the Dauphiné at Morzine after dropping Cadel Evans, Brad Wiggins and the Team Sky armada on the Col de Joux-Plane; and a brilliant solo success in the Italian semi-classic, the Giro dell’Emilia, which finishes on the famed San Luca climb in Bologna.
R for Rodriguez. At age 33, Spanish climber Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha Team had his best-ever season, ending as No. 1 in the UCI WorldTour rankings for the second time in three years. His season was book-ended by classics victories at the Flèche Wallonne and Il Lombardia, while he won two stages and finished second overall at the Giro, and won three stages and placed third overall at the Vuelta.
S for Sagan. Many observers have compared Slovak prodigy Peter Sagan of Liquigas-Cannondale, still only 22, with the young Eddy Merckx. He won 16 times this year, starting with a stage of the Tour of Oman in February, and going on to win singles stages at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Three Days of De Panne, five stages at the Tour of California, four stages at the Tour of Switzerland and three stages of the Tour de France (along with the green jersey). Perhaps just as significant was the promise he showed in the spring classics, including fourth place at Milan-San Remo, second at Ghent-Wevelgem, fifth at the Tour of Flanders and third at the Amstel Gold Race.
T for Tiernan-Locke. Despite riding for a ProContinental team (Endura Racing) and missing several weeks of racing because of injury, Britain’s latest discovery, Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, won four European stages races this year: the Mediterranean Tour and Tour du Haut Var in February, the Tour Alsace in July, and the Tour of Britain in September. All this at age 27 after missing three complete seasons because of the Epstein-Barr virus. His reward is a contract with Team Sky for 2013.
U for USADA. What could never be proven by hundreds of anti-doping tests was revealed in the testimonies of a dozen former U.S. Postal Service teammates in an investigation conducted by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency: Lance Armstrong used banned drugs and blood-doped for a decade when he was clocking up all those Tour de France wins. The investigation was masterminded by USADA CEO Travis Tygart, an attorney, who homed in on America’s iconic champion after May 2010, when Armstrong’s one-time colleague Floyd Landis began to spill the beans about doping within the former U.S. team.
V for Vos. Still only 25, Dutch phenom Marianne Vos carried all before her in 2012. Not only did she win the world cyclo-cross championship for the fourth consecutive year, but she also won the UCI World Cup for a fourth time (along with three rounds of the premier women’s competition), retained her title in the women’s Giro d’Italia (including five stage wins), and then won gold in a brilliantly exciting edition of the Olympic road race. Vos capped her season with a solo victory in the world road championship—after five consecutive years of silver medals!
W for Wiggins. Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins became the first British rider to win the Tour de France, and he did it in the style of five-time champions Jacques Anquetil and Miguel Induráin: by winning the long time trials and defending the yellow jersey in the mountains. But the 32-year-old Brit’s 2012 season wasn’t just about the Tour. He preceded it by becoming the first man to win Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie and Critérium du Dauphiné stage races in the same year, and he capped it by winning the Olympic time trial to add to the three pursuit golds he won at previous Games and his six world track titles from his pre-road career.
X for Xu. Winner of the Chinese national road championship, the Champion System team’s Xu Gang, 28, raced from February to November in his first season as a ProContinental team rider. Besides winning his national title, Xu finished no less than 11 international stage races: the Tours of Qatar, Oman, Taiwan, Japan, Qinghai Lake, Utah, China I and China II, Beijing, Hainan and Taihu Lake! He cracked the top 20 in Taiwan, Japan and China I.
Y for Yates. British cycling Hall-of-Famer Sean Yates crowned his management career by leading Wiggins and Chris Froome to their unprecedented 1-2 finish at the Tour de France. That added to his own Tour career as a rider when he won a time trial stage in 1988 and wore the yellow jersey for a day in 1994. Yates, 52, announced his retirement from cycling in October because of health problems (he has suffered from heart irregularities for several years) and not because of Team Sky’s new zero-tolerance policy (Yates had an A-sample test positive after a Belgian race in 1989, but the B-sample was negative).
Z for Zabel. No, not Erik Zabel, the winner of six Tour de France green jerseys, four editions of Milan-San Remo and three Paris-Tours, but his 18-year-old son Rick Zabel who began his under-23 career this year with the Rabobank Continental squad. His 2012 highlights were winning the German national U23 road title and placing second to Belgian pro Kevin Claeys in the Ronde van Limburg, a 190-kilometer Belgian semi-classic with a 1.2 rating in the UCI Europe Tour.
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Olympic image: Surrey County Council
Sagan & Wiggins images: Photoreporter Sirotti
Following Team Sky’s collective domination of the climbing stages at the Critérium du Dauphiné this past weekend, comparisons are being made with great teams of the past: the Molteni armada of Eddy Merckx, the La Vie Claire crew of Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond, and the infamous Train Bleu of Lance Armstrong. It’s said that comparisons are odious, but few would deny that the performance of Brad Wiggins and his Sky teammates last Saturday on the mighty Col de Joux-Plane, this Dauphiné’s one truly challenging climb, was nothing less than extraordinary.
The result was that the eight-day Dauphiné ended in a repeat overall victory for Wiggins, with his teammates Mick Rogers (second), Chris Froome (fourth) and Richie Porte (ninth) also finishing top 10. It appears to be a similar result to the 1986 Tour de France, when LeMond was first, Hinault second and their La Vie Claire teammates Andy Hampsten (fourth) and Niki Rüttimann (seventh) also placed top 10. But that result was achieved in a very different manner: Hampsten, Rüttimann and Steve Bauer were LeMond’s only true helpers at that Tour, while Hinault raced an almost separate race, riding against LeMond and supported by the team’s other four (mostly French) domestiques.
As for Merckx and Armstrong, they controlled their teams to act in concert, using their strongest teammates to prepare the ground before making their own moves. In Merckx’s case, those moves sometimes included extraordinary, long solo breakaways, while Armstrong rarely changed his winning formula of making late bursts on mountaintop finishes. The one thing that Armstrong, Merckx, LeMond and Hinault all have in common with Wiggins today is their superiority in time trials. And time trials will play a big role in the upcoming Tour.
However, what Wiggo and his Merry Men did in last week’s Dauphiné was somewhat unusual. They achieved their overall dominance with what amounted to daily team time trials—even up the Joux-Plane! Their having four mean leading an eventual nine-man group to the French mountain’s 5,577-foot summit may have looked like the 2004 Tour hegemony of Armstrong U.S. Postal squad, which had seven men pulling a 22-man peloton up the Col d’Agnes in the Pyrenees; but those Postal riders separately made their strong pulls before dropping back to leave Armstrong alone to battle for victory with Ivan Basso on that stage’s final climb to Plateau de Beille.
The one similar tactic for Sky on the Joux-Plane came from the British team’s Norwegian phenom, Eddy Boasson Hagen, who softened the opposition by setting a fierce tempo in the opening half of the renowned alpine climb, which at almost 12 kilometers long and an average grade approaching 9 percent, is even tougher than L’Alpe d’Huez. The relay was taken up by Sky’s rising Australian star, Porte, who, incredibly, pulled the diminished group for the rest of the 35-minute ascent. All Wiggins had to do was follow with Froome and Rogers.
Other than the non-threatening Colombian climber Nairo Quintana of Movistar, who was “allowed” to sneak ahead (and win the stage), the only riders still with the Sky foursome at the Joux-Plane summit were two team leaders, Cadel Evans of BMC Racing and Jurgen Van Den Broeck of Lotto-Belisol, and three lieutenants, Vasil Kiryienka of Movistar, Pieter Weening of Orica-GreenEdge and Haimar Zubeldia of RadioShack-Nissan-Trek.
Evans, who is still building his form for the Tour, admitted that the climbing pace set by Boasson Hagen and Porte on the Joux-Plane was too constantly strong for him to contemplate making an uphill attack, especially in gusting winds. Evans did use his renowned bike-handling skills to make a downhill attack … but the Aussie seemed to forget that the true descent of the Joux-Plane doesn’t start until a second summit (actually called the Col de Ranfolly), and he wasted energy in a fruitless attack on the two, mainly flat kilometers between the two peaks. So he didn’t finally break through Sky’s impregnable wall until halfway down the 9km descent to the finish in Morzine. If he hadn’t made that initial move Evans, who had placed second four times in four starts at the Dauphiné, would likely have netted enough time to move above Rogers into second overall. Instead, he ended up in third.
But the Dauphiné is not the Tour, and Evans and his BMC team will be at a much higher level in July. As for Wiggins, who’s mimicking Merckx (and Elvis!) with his quirky sideburns, the Brit and his Merry Men know that some of them will also be working hard for teammate Mark Cavendish at the Tour. But with the world champ, on a sugarless diet, on course for losing 10 pounds of body fat before the 2012 Tour de France starts in Liège on June 30, maybe the sprinter will be light enough to work for Wiggo in the climbing stages after he picks up a batch of stage wins in the first half of the Tour!
Another difference between the Dauphiné and the Tour is that most of the likely Tour contenders were either not at their best in the Dauphiné or racing this week’s Tour of Switzerland. Of course, Saturday’s climb of the Joux-Plane was a disaster for potential contenders Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale (nine minutes lost), Denis Menchov of Katusha and Samuel Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi (both 13 minutes back) … and RadioShack’s Andy Schleck, who didn’t even get that far, abandoning the Dauphiné on the stage’s first climb because of the injuries sustained in his time-trial crash last Thursday.
There have so far been mixed results in Switzerland for RadioShack’s other Tour contender, Fränk Schleck, Movistar’ leader Alejandro Valverde and two other likely Tour contenders, Levi Leipheimer of Omega-Quick Step and Robert Gesink of Rabobank. But by the end of the Swiss race—finishing with a full mountain stage next Sunday — all of those riders look likely to be on the same upward path as Evans.
If the Tour de France were starting right now instead of June 30, everyone would be predicting a race dominated by Team Sky and an overall victory for Wiggins. But as the Tour has seen countless times, crashes and sickness often ruin the hopes of favorites, as happened last year with Wiggins, Leipheimer and Gesink. And the true contenders rarely come to the top until the third and final week, as could be the case this year, with Evans, the Schlecks, and perhaps Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Barracuda, challenging Wiggo and his Merry Men.
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Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti